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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/22/13

Snowden - Knowledge (of Metadata) Is Power

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posted originally on Alternet

If the expression knowledge is power - attributed to the English Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon - is true, then it implies, among other things, that its opposite is also true. That is, if knowledge is power, then the lack of knowledge, or ignorance, amounts to a lack of, or exclusion from, power. As such, removing, obscuring, or hiding knowledge - in a word, secrecy - not only creates power, it produces powerlessness, weakness, and vulnerability as well. Indeed, as Elias Canetti phrased it in his Crowds and Power: "Secrecy lies at the very core of power." As the state, then, acquires ever more knowledge/power through such programs as PRISM, 'the people' in general - in spite of the State's dubious claims of enhancing security and safety - are only further weakened, put into an ever more vulnerable, precarious position. In addition to the myriad political, legal, and ethical issues embedded in the debate concerning the whistleblower Edward Snowden's ongoing disclosures of classified information, this nonconsensual, actual precarization of the public (by secretive state and private-sector agencies whose authority to gather this power is by no means clear) constitutes a substantial harm in itself.

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As such, those who argue that mass surveillance is wrong because it leads to horrible things at the bottom of a slippery slope entirely miss the point. Notwithstanding the fact that the 'slippery slope' is a logical fallacy, the harm under consideration does not lie in some hypothetical future. Beyond present-day trespasses to people's privacy, this actual disempowerment, which replaces political subjectivity with political subjugation to an unprecedentedly powerful state, is a present, concrete harm. That the disclosure of secrets disrupts this unprecedented aggrandizement of power to some degree explains why whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and others are exposed to such vengeful persecution. Insofar as whistleblowers have exposed this secrecy, along with its contents, they have not only redistributed knowledge, but have redistributed and threatened power as well.

Though US political culture has traditionally (if only nominally) claimed to be suspicious of concentrations of power, in reality order - as opposed to liberty - is predicated on just such concentrations. To be sure, while people like to point to the Constitution's separation of powers schema as evidence of this alleged enmity to tyrannical concentrations of power, it is nothing short of a political-economic fact that that which is subject to separation hardly comprises actual power. For let us not forget that the US is a 'representative democracy.' And the interests represented in local, state and federal government alike are overwhelmingly those of the rich. This should not be too contentious a claim. Not only do the rich bankroll practically every candidate running for public office - and so act as gatekeepers to political office - the Supreme Court's notorious decision in Citizens United (which holds that money is consubstantial with political speech) only amplifies this dynamic; in spite of any rhetoric to the contrary, one's political power is contingent on one's economic power.

When one factors into this the reality that economic power has concentrated to unprecedented levels over the past few decades - to such a degree that the top 1% of the country now controls more than 42% of the country's wealth - it takes willful blindness to fail to see that power is not only not separated, it is concentrated into what without hyperbole can be described as tyrannical intensities.

So, although Obama may argue that checks and balances are in place and that what the national security state is doing is legal because the three branches of representative government agree that it passes constitutional muster should not be terribly persuasive; let us not forget, Obama claims that due process requirements are satisfied  when officials confer in secret to select who gets placed on secret kill lists. Even the New York Times, in a recent editorial responding to disclosures of mass surveillance, proclaimed that "the [Obama] administration has now lost all credibility on this issue."

With his dystopian Disposition Matrix, his secretive drone strikes, his massive surveillance programs, including PRISM, and his record-breaking prosecutions and persecutions of whistleblowers - not to mention ongoing abuses at Guantanamo, among other places - well into his second term in office it is not difficult to see that Obama's presidency is far from offering a corrective to the excesses of the Bush years. Indeed, although George W. Bush's aggrandizement of the executive branch was exceptional, it pales when compared to Obama's permanentization of what, under Bush, were still temporary powers. And as secrecy confers more and more power, and leaks and disclosures of secrets threaten this power, it is unsurprising that Obama will pursue Snowden, and others, with the tenacity of those zealots whom Obama claims to be the cool, polar opposite of.

While it may sound grandiose, it is nevertheless the case that by disclosing secret information, such as the existence of PRISM, Edward Snowden has to some degree fragmented and dispersed the concentrated power of capital and the state. And as more revelations are said to be on the way, it is interesting to consider the meaning of the word revelation, and to note that revelation is the English word for what in Greek is termed apocalypse. Apocalypse, of course, carries a double meaning. Not only does it connote unconcealment, the revelation of what is hidden and secret; it also denotes the destruction of a world. And perhaps this is what Obama and the class he represents are so terrified of after all: that the injustices that are being revealed will lead to the end of their world of power. Hopefully it will - and will lead to the instantiation of a world in which justice, as opposed to dominating power, is realized.

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Elliot Sperber is an attorney, teacher, and researcher/writer focusing on legal theory, political theory, and human rights.

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